Colin Clarke speaks to his charges during a training session Thursday.

Following an off-season of upheaval for several teams around the North American Soccer League, the buzzword around the Carolina RailHawks entering their 2013 campaign is continuity. For the first time in five years, the club did not change its owner, president or head coach during the off-season, allowing the front office to sharpen its focus on the sort of connection building that team president Curt Johnson is so fond of foisting.

Even before the kickoff of the RailHawks’ 2013 NASL regular season, the club has already set a new single-game home attendance record of 8,054 for the March 20 friendly against Pumas da la UNAM. It announced a significant collaboration and sponsorship arrangement with Capital Area Soccer League in which the CASL boys’ USSF Development Academy and Elite Clubs National League (ECNL) girls’ teams will compete under the name “Capital Area RailHawks.” In conjunction with the expansion of WakeMed Soccer Park, the club has constructed open-air party decks that will feature, among other libationary amenities, after-match entertainment by musicians arranged through ReverbNation, a music social networking website. Musical groups will also accompany several pre-game events planned throughout the season.

And, oh, there are soccer games going on, too. The RailHawks return at least 15 players from last season’s roster, including the bulk of an attacking corps that scored the second-most goals in the league.

“The biggest difference is that we’ve got some good pieces here so you don’t have to go out and find those,” says RailHawks manager Colin Clarke. “To go and replace the likes of (Ty) Shipalane, (Brian) Shriver, (Nick) Zimmerman, (Zack) Schilawski, (Austin) Da Luz, (Floyd) Franks, that’s hard to do. And we were lucky to get some of them last year … Everybody says we’ve got a big nucleus coming back. Now you’ve got to add the bits that you feel will compliment them and make us better.”

Adding those bits has been the biggest off-season obstacle for Clarke. New ownership groups in San Antonio and now Minnesota began offering top players increased salaries that several more thrifty teams, including the RailHawks, could not match.

“Now all of a sudden the price for players has gone up,” Clarke says. “I’m glad that we had the players we’ve got already signed under option or we would have lost some of them, because they’ve [Minnesota and San Antonio] been offering ridiculous money to certain players. When I’ve gone in to try to sign some of them that I’ve really liked, I can’t even start to talk.”

According to Clarke, Carolina, along with the other two Traffic USA-owned clubs—Atlanta and Fort Lauderdale—have three of the smallest player budgets in the league. In the case of the RailHawks, Clarke’s total player budget this season remained the same as last year. However, the actual amount of available funds has been further drained by two factors. Player contracts are guaranteed until the end of the NASL regular season, which this year runs until November 2, unlike last year when regular season play concluded on September 23.

“The [budget] number that I got was the same as last year, but now our season is six weeks longer than last year,” says Clarke. “So, the budget in effect has been cut.”

The second was the large number of second-year club options exercised in order to retain that returning core of players. When Clarke joined the RailHawks in December 2011, there were only two players under contract for 2012. Both Clarke and Johnson stated that they wanted to integrate more club options into top player contracts moving forward. Clarke is clear that without those options, Carolina would have lost many key players during this free-spending off-season.

However, that stability comes with a price.

“A big part of our budget was already spent because of the kids we had coming back,” Clarke explains. “You take up somebody’s option they automatically get a raise. Some of our raises were pretty steep because [their salary] wasn’t a lot to start with. They agreed to come here and play—because they wanted to be here—for very little money, with the option of if they stayed [their salary would increase]. That’s happened.”

As such, the club has struggled—at least in comparison to several other clubs—to replace several key departures, including midfielders Amir Lowery and Mike Palacio, goalkeeper Ray Burse and defender Gale Agbossoumonde.

The most high profile off-season addition was Nicholas Addlery, a veteran forward who spent the past four seasons (the first two playing under Clarke) with the Puerto Rico Islanders. Prior to that, he spent time with DC United and the USL-1 Vancouver Whitecaps. Addlery scored nine goals in 2012, fifth-most in the NASL.

And, boy, is Addlery bullish about his new team’s chances at a championship.

“With Colin Clarke and this group of players, for me, this is the most talented group that I’ve ever seen in this league, in my opinion,” Addlery declares. “If you look at the depth of the team and the caliber of some of the players where they’ve played … I could keep going for the next 20 minutes about every single player on the roster. Talented, talented team.”

Addlery says his familiarity with Clarke was one reason he came to Carolina instead of elsewhere in the league. But the 31-year-old striker says winning championships is paramount at this stage of his career.

“The other places, are they going to be competing for a championship is the first question you have to ask … I knew this team was going to be competing for the championship, and I said let’s take advantage of it.”

Both Clarke and Addlery assert that despite the RailHawks’ slow start last year—including a nine-game winless skid to open the regular season campaign—their strong finish during the second half of the season gives them momentum entering 2013.

“They have last year under their belt,” Addlerly says. “They had the growing pains of starting out slow. But, they picked it up in the end and have that to build on. We’ve also had a longer preseason than last year, which is always good for more time to gel. I think the team is very, very strong depth-wise.”

One advantage of the RailHawks’ rigorous preseason schedule is that it provided ample opportunities for the team to progress from its inept outing against the Vancouver Whitecaps on Feb. 24 to a respectable showing against Pumas a month later. It also afforded plenty of chances to assess the squad’s strengths and weaknesses, many of which are unchanged from last season.

Ty Shipalane celebrates his equalizer against the L.A. Galaxy last May in Cary, N.C.
  • Chris Baird
  • Ty Shipalane celebrates his equalizer against the L.A. Galaxy last May in Cary, N.C.

On offense, Carolina returns Brian Shriver, Zack Schilawski, Ty Shipalane and Brian Ackley, together with the addition of Addlery. Austin Da Luz, a deft distributor in midfield, figures to receive increased minutes, joined by Floyd Franks, Breiner Ortiz and a stronger, improved Nick Millington. Ciaran O’Brien and Kevin Burns, formerly of the Atlanta Silverbacks and Columbus Crew, respectively, look to add midfield depth. And 18-year-old striker Jake Beckford, who was only permitted to train with the club last year, will make his official RailHawks debut.

“I love the versatility we have going forward, more so than last year,” Clarke says. “It’s exciting some of the talent we’ve got on the board.”

Nick Zimmerman, the league’s second-leading scorer last year, has not yet joined RailHawks’ camp. Zimmerman went on trial with both the Montreal Impact and Sporting KC, where he suffered a knee injury that required a minor surgical procedure. According Clarke, Zimmerman has resumed training with Sporting KC, which wants to fully evaluate him before deciding whether to obtain his services or allow him to return to Carolina. The potential insertion of Zimmerman would obviously add even greater potency to the RailHawks’ attack.

But, as heady as RailHawks supporters are about the attacking third, they are just as anxious about the defense. It’s an anxiety shared by everyone from the team president to the head coach.

“We’ve been trying to add to [the back line] for quite a while,” says Clarke. “Not good enough last year, hasn’t been good enough the start of this year.”

In fairness, there have been a few bright spots this preseason. The ageless Kupono Low has appeared lively and fit at left back, and Austen King seems to have improved demonstrably over his rookie season. The club also acquired right back Jordan Graye, a former Tar Heel who contributed solid play after being brought in for Carolina’s stretch run last season.

But center back is where Carolina is most porous, despite the presence of veterans Greg Shields and Sam Stockley. To that end, Clarke has signed two defenders during training camp: MLS vet Julius James and former FC Edmonton starter Paul Hamilton, a 2012 NASL Best XI selection. Clarke says he’s in contact with other possible defending additions, including a center back in Scotland who will join the club once his club play concludes in a few weeks.

One returnee and one new addition look to replace Burse at goalkeeper. Akira Fitzgerald, who has been with the club the past two seasons, hopes to finally receive starter’s minutes. Pushing him will be Tim Murray, a 25-year-old who spent the last three seasons as a New England Revolution reservist.

“They’re two young kids that are hungry for their opportunity to play,” Clarke says. “Akira has been relishing this chance for a long time, and now he’s got it. I think he’ll do very, very well … Tim Murray is someone that’s highly recommended and a keeper who needs his chance and needs games and experience. It’ll be an interesting battle between the two of them.”

With the NASL’s new split regular season format, every game assumes heightened importance. Clarke says the team is targeting the first three games of the season—a road match at the defending NASL champions Tampa Bay Rowdies followed by two home games against FC Edmonton and the Fort Lauderdale Strikers—before a two-week break. Those results are important if Carolina hopes to lay claim to the NASL Spring Season title.

“There’s more of a buzz around,” Clarke observes. “We’re good enough and could have won [the championship] last year, even after the start we had. We can’t afford that start this year.”